Musings from Mars

After attending a NASA research mission in the Mojave Desert, Dan Ruby reports back on what scientists are doing to prepare for a mission to Mars

Dan Ruby inside the Cima Crater of the Mojave Desert, where the Spaceward Bound group was testing a Mars rover.

Dan Ruby inside the Cima Crater of the Mojave Desert, where the Spaceward Bound group was testing a Mars rover.

Since 1960, there’ve been 38 attempts to explore Mars, the majority made by the United States and Russian governments. With each successful mission—11 trips have resulted in photographing, orbiting or landing on Mars—the eventuality of humans making a trip to Mars becomes more likely.

It’s going to be awhile before we get there. Estimates vary from 10-20 years.

But NASA is already working on preparing the next generation of space travelers by sending scientists and teachers on research missions to Earthly spots that bear some resemblance to the Red Planet.

In the Atacama Desert in Chile, the lifeless, drier-than-Nevada soil is similar enough to Martian dirt to provide a testing ground for instruments that could search for microbial life on Mars. In Antarctica, scientists conduct studies on the potential impact of long-term isolation that a trip to Mars would entail. (Approximate one-way travel time using current technology: six months.) Closer to home, researchers experiment in Southern California’s Mojave Desert to try to determine the details of supporting life on Mars.

Mars in the Mojave
In March, Dan Ruby, associate director of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Fleischmann Planetarium, joined a team of researchers and educators for one of NASA’s Spaceward Bound missions at the Zzyzx Desert Research Center near Baker, Calif.

Ruby, who talks to about 13,000 students a year at the planetarium, was invited with the hope that he’d be among those who could help excite kids about space travel.

Ruby spent five nights in a University of California bunkhouse that he describes as “worse than military, better than prison, probably infested with scorpions.” He woke before dawn to accompany other scientists as they experimented with heat-sensitive imaging, climate-adaptable bacteria and cave exploration.

“If people go to Mars, you’re going to be there for a while,” says Ruby. “You’ll need a place to stay.”

Fortunately for future Mars-dwellers, researchers from Northern Arizona University proposed a few weeks ago that Mars has caves.

“[Caves are] likely to be better shielded from radiation and have better humidity control [than the planet’s surface],” says Ruby. “If there’s life on Mars, it’s probably sub-surface.”

Caves on Mars would be hard to find just by looking for them, so researchers on Earth are experimenting with temperature-sensitive imaging, also called “thermography.”

“The idea is that with thermography, one could detect entrances to lava tubes more easily, or at least could remotely sense what is difficult or impossible to do in person,” says Ruby. Even if cave entrances are camouflaged in the landscape, he says, “once you use a thermal camera, they pop.”

“We did a bunch of caving and hot-air ballooning using thermal imaging cameras,” he reports. Jim Thompson, a thermography expert and advisor to the L. Ron Hubbard Foundation, which “supports scientific exploration into the unknown,” was on hand with his hot-air balloon and equipment.

Taking a break from using sensors to measure temperature and humidity in the Mojave’s Pisgah Crater are, from left, fellow Spaceward Bounders Dan Loewen, Kristy Garvin, J. Judson Wynn and Dan Ruby.

The balloon was tethered above cave entrances to use as a stable viewing platform, which might be a good way to explore caves on Mars. There was some disagreement over whether it was the most efficient approach in the Mojave, though.

“It turned out that the rim of the crater was actually above the basket of the balloon, so that actually provided a better vantage point,” Ruby says. “But at least, in practice, the balloon platform works well. From either location, Jut [Judson Wynne, one of the Northern Arizona University researchers who proposed that caves exist on Mars] would radio possible cave locations to ground teams, and six out of six suspected cave entrances were confirmed, so apparently, the method works well.”

Another subject of study was cyanobacteria, a photosynthetic form of blue-green algae that lives in just about any kind of habitat on Earth. Ostensibly, if something can live on Mars, it might resemble cyanobacteria.

“It’s this really weird deal,” says Ruby of cyanobacteria. “If you soak it in water, it wakes up.”

NASA’s Chris McKay, researchers from San Jose State University, and representatives from the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas searched for cyanobacterial mats, crusts and fossils, looking to see in just how dry a climate this highly adaptable species could survive.

Members of the Spaceward Bound team also conducted experiments with robotic vehicles of the type currently used to explore Mars.

Ruby describes a small off-roader that had some trouble accessing caves in the Mojave: “It’s not a real Mars rover. It’s a play Mars rover. This is a cheapo version. It costs about 5,000 bucks. They work in swarms. There’s a bunch of them, and they talk to each other. If they lose contact with satellites, they can talk to each other.”

The case for space
For Ruby, the expedition raised some general questions about how much funding should be allocated to space travel, especially in relation to earthly causes competing for government resources.

He notes that there are some problems on Earth that would benefit from extra funding, but on the other hand, he points out, “For about the amount you could pay to fight Iraq for a year, you could fund NASA for a while.”

The Mars Society, a NASA-affiliated organization with chapters in almost every country, aims to make a mission to Mars our top space-exploration priority. It notes in its online FAQ that estimates go up to $450 billion. Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin’s proposal is the most cost-efficient on record at $30 billion.

According to the Mars Society, Mars exploration is a must. The group cites technological advancements from space exploration that have affected daily life—velcro, microwaves—and suggests that alternatives to fossil fuels could be a foreseeable advancement resulting from Mars exploration.

Ruby is sympathetic to these arguments in favor of expenditure. He says a competitive American presence in space is likely to remain a political priority. But he wouldn’t mind seeing the budgetary focus shifted to resources that affect his planetarium visitors and other young students more directly.

“Spending money to put people on Mars may not be as important as having really good telescopes that work,” he says. “Things at NASA, like Hubble [The Hubble Space Telescope, which has been orbiting the Earth since 1990], are horribly under-funded.”

On the other side, he says that a number of non-NASA scientists and organizations, from independent contractors to universities to the U.S. Geological Survey, find research funding through NASA’s long-term projects.

In either case, Ruby was most impressed by how approachable planetary research seems after his trip. Even after false starts, malfunctioning equipment and an embarrassingly timed balloon crash on the day the media crews showed up, some parts of the mission were accomplished, specifically, improving the channels of communication between government scientists and educators.

“None of this was above anybody’s head,” he says. “It’s not like they were dumbing it down for middle-school teachers. Everybody was more than happy to talk about their work and not patronizing or not impatient, which was fun.”